Hermits and Hermit Cells

Hermits and Hermit Cells

My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand.”

Saint Antony the Great

Such was Antony’s answer to the enquiry of the visiting Greek philosopher who wondered how such a learned man as he, got along in the desert without the benefit of books. 

In that answer lies the keynote of much that seems to us inexplicable about the life of the hermits. The truest of their kind were Nature lovers. Their years were “bound each to each by natural piety.” Anchorites and hermits like Paul and Antony of the Thebaid were the Wordsworth’s and Austin’s of ancient times, who saw and understood the beauties of God in the cliffs and cascades of the wilderness and the opening buds of the garden, even though they were not, like modern poets of nature, able to impart with their pens to others the thoughts inspired by mountain, rock, and sea. There has always been a certain class of men and women who has found the essence of life’s enjoyment in solitary meditation, or who has seen the highest motive of life to be the recognising of God in the works of Nature. 

Quite apart from Christianity the spirit of the hermit is natural to some. Even in the philosophies of Greece we find the Stoics and Cynics studiously keeping apart from their fellows lest sympathy and contact with others should be a source of contamination. The wizards and witches of the dark ages are probably lineal descendants of the recluses of some old-world religion of fairies and goblins and nature worship. No one can read Sir Edwin Arnold’s “Light of Asia,” without at once being reminded, in Buddha’s history, of the hermits of Christianity, while the fakirs of modern India prove that the spirit of the hermit is not confined to times nor limited to certain areas. 

Again and again has the world at its crises had its course marvellously altered by the unveiling of one of these veiled prophets—the coming forth into the light of common day from the darkness of retirement for the stemming of warfare, for the relief of those afflicted with pestilence, or for the righting of wrongs, of some hermit who, having learned to control his own will, is fittest to control the will of others. 

Then the spirit of the hermit has appeared in a new light when giving vent to all the pent-up energies acquired by years of solitary retirement and meditation, as though he would atone for his seeming want of sympathy with his fellows by a superabundant supply in emergencies. Even so in Chrysostom’s early days the hermits came from their Syrian retirement and gained for Antioch pardon for the insult to the Statues. The Nitrian hermits came to nurse the plague-stricken Alexandrian’s, and Peter the Hermit fired the world with enthusiasm for the First Crusade. 

There is something wildly fantastic and often sensationally romantic in the histories of hermits, yet beneath the sentiment and beneath the romance lies a reality — a stern reality of will’s endeavour to amputate from life the worst passions of nature, and often with them those which make nature loveable. There is a forgetfulness on the part of the hermit that the parable of the tares may be applied to the microcosmos of man’s own individual soul no less really than to the harvest field of God’s world. 

Yet the hermit life was often in earlier times possibly an absolute necessity to many who entered upon it. Even in Anselm’s day the secular life, synonymous with that of sin, or the religious life of ascetic rule were the only alternatives. With all its flaws and its alienation from social life, the system of the hermit emphasised the grandest principle of the christian ethics —unselfishness and both in the Grecian and Roman communities made practical what S. Paul himself dared not even hint at— the abolition of slavery; for it taught that there was no disgrace in manual labour, and it taught this not merely in theory but in practice, when the cultured courtiers of the Byzantine or Roman palaces retired to sow and reap on the banks of the Nile, or nurse the sick in the pestilential slums of the great cities. 

The origin of the name “hermit” is interesting. Its form in the writings of Jerome and in Latin deeds of the Middle Ages show its derivation at once from έρήμος—desert, for they adopted the word έρημιτης straight from the Greek Fathers. The hermit is essentially one who lives in the desert. Writers with a classical tinge kept the original form as late as Milton. In “Paradise Regained” we read : 

Thou Spirit, who ledst this glorious Eremite
Into the Desert, his Victorious Field

John Milton. Paradise Regain’d; Book 1, 1671.

Though Spenser his predecessor in a pretty description of a hermitage and chapel spells the word “hermite.” [Cf. The Fairy Queen, Book. vi.,, Canto v.]

However, the Anglicised form had been used long before. In the original of Sir George Lancastre’s patent from Henry Earl of Northumberland in the 23rd year of Henry VIII, of the Conygarth with the Hermitage of Warkworth, it is repeatedly called interchangeably “Armitage” or “Harmytage.”  In Dan Michel of Northgate’s curious old “Aȝenbite of Inwit—lit.: the again-biting of inner wit—or prick of conscience,” written in Kentish dialect of Middle English about AD 1340, we come upon the word “ermitage” in the quaint parable of how the priest in the temple of Mahomet was converted into a monk of Christ, though synchronously with this Sir John Mandeville uses the other form in his “Travels”  “And at the deserts of Arabia, he went into a chapel where a hermit dwelt.” By and by, in the same chatty book, the word is prefixed with the aspirate when he tells why Mahomet cursed wine. [cf. “The travels of Sir John Mandeville: the version of the Cotton manuscript” ch. XV. pp. 94-95]

“And so it befell upon a night, that Mahomet was drunken of good wine, and he fell on sleep. And his men took Mahomet’s sword out of his sheath, whiles he slept, and therewith they slew this hermit, and put his sword all bloody in his sheath again. And at morrow, when he found the hermit dead, he was full sorry and wroth, and would have done his men to death. But they all, with one accord, said that he himself had slain him, when he was drunken, and shewed him his sword all bloody. And he trowed that they had said sooth. And then he cursed the wine and all those that drink it.”  

In the history of Monasticism, hermits hold two distinct positions. In the first place hermits themselves gave rise originally to communities of monks. The example of one hermit drew others into the desert beside him, and so the Cenobitic monastery, became naturally evolved. In the second place, under the evolved monastic system, some continually sighed for stricter rules and more solitary meditation, and so, withdrawing from the common life of the brotherhood, took up their abode in some cell, perhaps near to the monastery. Such was the case with St. Cuthbert, who spent over 10 years living as a hermit on Inner Farne, withdrawing from the monastery of Lindisfarne, took up his abode in the cell of Farne Island. 

Great master-minds, like St. Martin of Tours, have led the van by first being hermits themselves, then founding Cenobitic monasteries have subsequently retired to some more secluded spot among the mountains, or on some almost inaccessible ocean rock. Hence it is often difficult in investigating the origin of a hermitage near unto an abbey, to decide whether the cell was established first, and then led to the formation of the neighbouring abbey, as the Cell of Godric led to the founding of Finchale, near Durham, or whether an abbey was founded first, and then cells branched off from it, for the retirement of those, who, like St. Cuthbert, wished for further seclusion, or for the missionary extension of religion in dark places. Such possibly was the cell formed at Westoe, as a branch from Jarrow, and to the self-same status probably was Jarrow itself degraded afterwards, when it became simply a subordinate cell dependent upon the Abbey of Durham. 

In Mediaeval England hermits seem often to have played the important part of officiating minister in places far from Abbey churches. 

Indeed for the matter of that, parish priests in lonely spots have in much later times really led hermit lives. 

Barnard Castle

In the latter part of the twelfth century, in the time of Hugh de Balliol, Lord of Bywell, Barnard Castle and Gainford, a certain hermit called Walter de Bolebec II gave to the monastery of Kelso his hermitage and church of St. Mary’s, in the waste and forest south of Hexham, probably at Slaley. From which we should judge that he had been the ministering spirit of the foresters, herdsmen, and moss-troopers of that region, until he founded for the Premonstratensian canons Blanchland Abbey of St Mary the Virgin, in 1165. 

Generally with the hermit’s cell was a little chapel or oratory in which he could perform his own devotions, and to which he might invite the neighbouring cottagers to join him. Such seems to have been the object of the hermitage built at the end of the bridge at Stockport, in Cheshire, with its oratory of the fourteenth century. 

To traverse the history of Christian hermits we must go to Eastern countries, ever the natural home of ascetism and mysticism, which are always tinged with fanaticism there, whether found in Jewish Essene or later Montanist. 

The first recorded Christian hermit who prominently practised seclusion from his fellows was Paul of the Thebaid, whose life and miracles are so enthusiastically narrated by St. Jerome, the greatest advocate and promoter of asceticism, both for men and women, that the world has ever known.

Partly contemporary with Paul is Antony, whose life, written by St. Athanasius, reads more like a romance of the Arabian nights, with the wondrous tales of demonology and animal subjection to the hermit’s will. Antony, in his ruined castle by the Red Sea, thought himself the first and best of hermits when he reached the age of ninety, but it was revealed to him that there was beyond him, and better than he, a hermit whom he must visit. After marvellous adventures with Hippocentaurs, fauns, and satyrs, he arrived at the cave of Paul, whom he found to be 113 years old. An inseparable friendship sprang up between these two heroes of fasting and vigil, which lasted until Antony looked upon the form of the dead Paul still kneeling in prayer in his little oratory with stiffened hands uplifted to the skies, finding him even as the servants of David Livingstone (a man of modern times, but tinged with much of the good old hermit spirit which caused him to cut himself off from the luxuries of home life, that he might promote the crusade of Christianity in the desert wilds of South Africa) found their master. 

The example of these hero hermits was quickly followed by numbers, until the Thebaid of Egypt and the Nitrian Desert were thickly populated with self-abnegating martyrs severing themselves from human love and human hope, as well as human sin. 

The system spread rapidly into Syria, ripe ever for a revival of the Essene School, insomuch that soon it was difficult to get candidates for ordination, for the secluded life of meditation was held in higher esteem than the active missionary life of priesthood. The pages of “De Sacerdotio” show how difficult it was to uproot this doctrine even from the mind of St. Chrysostom, himself a hermit forcibly dragged to ordination and an active life.

But the growing error of the unpardonable nature of sin after baptism, caused yet more stringent application of ascetic exercises to prevent the yielding to passion, and developed that strange wild phase seen in the pillar saints, whose characteristic it was to raise themselves upon some solitary pillar many cubits high, and perhaps only three feet in diameter, and there undergo all changes of weather and all dreadful horrors, until the gruesome details make one sick to read them, and wonder that human will could so overmaster the feelings as to endure such torments voluntarily. But if the feelings were blunted and overmastered, so was the intellect; for the illusions, the visions, and even the miracles of these and other hermits are but the “frothy working of a mind diseased.”  

Simeon Stylites was the pioneer of these pillar saints, and received his surname from this fact. The little monologue by Lord Tennyson, called after him, gives anyone who can read between the lines a singularly vivid picture of the inner working of his soul, and the motives that led to this strange life. Simeon was imitated by very many, and the fame of his saintliness and pseudo-miracles caused a perfect forest of pillars to begin to rise throughout Syria, some of the occupants of which even outsimeoned Simeon in the tenacity of their endurance. 

The spirit of the hermit passed to the Latin world, but here it received a modulation due partly to the general legal constitution of the Latin world, partly to the Augustinian Theology of the age, and the solitary hermit founded the Cenobitic monastery, with its rules and order without the wild impetuous fanaticism and mysticism that marked the Eastern monk. 

The monks of the West, in the spirit of the West, tended to the study of men and human nature, and the works of man in literature and art. Yet some there are imbued with a love of Nature in her wildness, who can meditate on God and His works better in solitude, and so we find still the hermit leaving his monastic cell, and taking up his abode in mountain cave, or on some rocky islet even in the West. 

Again as in the East the Eremitic system is the check to serfdom; side by side with the overweening Norman baron is the baronial abbot laying aside his robes of office, and passing out to the hermit life, tilling the ground, digging out his cell, and showing it is no disgrace to work, but a glory. 

In England, we more frequently find instances of the Anchorite, who has a little chamber in connection with some abbey or church, wherein he dwells. Sometimes he immures himself so that he cannot get out, and is fed through some hole in  his enclosure. 

The picture we give of “Hermits and Hermitages” is from a MS Book of Hours, executed for Richard H. (British Museum, Cotton Domitian, A. xvii., folio 4 v.). “The artist” says the Rev. Edward L. Cutts, “probably intended to represent the old hermits of the Egyptian desert. Piers Ploughman’s — 

“Holy eremites That lived wild in woods With bears and lions;” 

but after the custom of mediaeval art, he has introduced the scenery, costume, and architecture of his own time. Erase the bears which stand for the whole tribe of outlandish beasts, and we have a very pretty bit of English Mountain scenery. The stags are characteristic enough of the scenery of mediaeval England. The hermitage on the right seems to be of the ruder sort, made in part of wattled work. On the left we have the more usual hermitage of stone, with the little chapel bell, in the bell-cot on the gable. The venerable old hermit, coming out of the doorway, is a charming illustration of the typical hermit, with his long beard, and his form bowed by age, leaning with one hand on his cross-staff, and carrying his rosary in the other.”

The hermitage or reclusorium at Hambledon, Hants., is connected with a large thirteenth century church. Built in the angle between the tower and the West end of the South aisle, its date is probably of the fourteenth century. It consisted of two large rooms, one above the other. The upper one, of which the floor is now removed, shows a drain pipe still remaining through the wall to the exterior, and this room probably the recluse would use as his ordinary dwelling-room and kitchen. There was a door in the upper room leading by a gallery through the South aisle to the parvise of the adjacent porch, so that our friend had the use of three good-sized rooms. The original wooden door in the wall of the parvise still remains. Nothing has been ascertained as to the person for whom this hospitium was erected. He is spoken of in some old documents at Winchester as the hermit at Hambledon, but the size of the rooms points to some different manner of life to that usually followed by a recluse. He may have been the sacristan, or conductor of the church music, or in some other way devoted his time and talents to the service of the church. There is no outer door, but access was obtained from the church of which the building is now used as the vestry.

St Andrew, Walpole St Andrew, Norfolk

Another anchorage at Walpole St. Andrews, Norfolk, is a much smaller edifice, and seems meant as a convenient receptacle for a devotee to immure himself therein alive. This cell of a holy man was probably much resorted to by superstitious dwellers in marshland. 

Against the North wall of the church of Ss. Mary and Cuthbert, at Chester-le-Street, was formerly an anchorage of four rooms. In later times this was used as the vicarage. 

Similar instances are found at Durham Cathedral. Over the great north doorway, with its dragon-head knocker, was a little room, wherein stayed two monks, ever ready to go down and open the door for the refugee when he rang the knocker of sanctuary. Again between the North aisle of the choir and the Nine Altars was a grand porch called the Anchorage. “Here dwelt an anchorite, whereunto the priors very much resorted, both for the excellency of the place, as also to hear mass, standing so conveniently unto the high altar, and withal so near a neighbour to the shrine of St. Cuthbert.” 

There was a regular service in the Salisbury Manual ( Cf. Baxter Philip. Sarum use: the development of a medieval code of liturgy and customs) for the walling in of anchorites. 

Even women thus immured themselves, like those three nuns at Kingston Tarrant, in Dorset, for whom the thirteenth century “Ancren Riwle” —a treatise on the rules and duties of monastic life— was written. 

Hagioscopes* in the North or south side of the chancel from little chambers behind in so many churches testify to the frequency of these immured anchorites. This, indeed, was the common form of hermit in the South and midland counties, and to this kind the darker aspects of the ascetic hermit, unhealthy Christianity, weakened intellect, and demoralised humanity, essentially belong. [*Hagioscopes or squint is an architectural term denoting a small splayed opening or tunnel at seated eye-level, through an internal masonry dividing wall of a church in an oblique direction (south-east or north-east), giving worshippers a view of the altar and therefore of the elevation of the host.]

The Fen district in its ancient state, provided scope for hermits of the type of Antony and Paul. There in the rich, wild, green pasturage, surrounded by marshes covered with water-lilies, and swarming with pike and perch, where the kingfishers dart and the wild ducks plunge, Anglo-Saxon  hermit St. Guthlac of Crowland made his hermit home in the seventh century; Guthlac had a career that rose from aristocratic warrior to monastic visionary and eventually patron saint of Crowland Abbey. 

He had been a warrior, but he had grown tired of slaying and sinning, and so he left his ancestral and princely home for the little green mound where he made his cell, and whereon, after fifteen years of self-abnegation, of starvation, ague, and fever had sent him to his long home, there arose the magnificent Abbey of Crowland. Over another of these fen heroes, St. Botwulf [or Botolph]of Thorney, arose another shrine, and round it gathered the town which still bears his name, Botolphston —from “Botolph’s stone” or “Botolph’s town” the market town of Boston in Lincolnshire. 

But it is the mountainous North, and especially the romantic crags and dells of the borderland, that in England proved the best ground for the nature-loving hermit in his purest and holiest form. All over the North country there are dotted places which still go by the name of Armitage or Hermitage, showing plainly the nature of the quondam inhabitant. Similarly in Scotland and Ireland the prefix kil, kel, or cul, shows at once the place where once upon a time there was no habitation but the “cell” of some hermit, or a group of “cells” of the ancient British form of monastery anterior to the introduction of the Benedictine rule. 

There is no history that is truer than that gained from place-names. 

Here is the hermitage at St. John’s Lee, near Hexham, a gentleman’s residence, with splendid gardens, and some of the finest beeches in England, but its name shows that this was the spot whither St. John of Beverley used to retire for weeks of meditation and devotion from the busy life of the Hexham Abbey in the seventh century. From some similar cause no doubt comes the name of the Hermitage, the residence of Sir Lindsay Wood, at Chester-le-Street.

From a hermitage in Eskdale, near Whitby, Godric of Finchale (c. 1070 – †21 May 1170), a native of Walpole in Norfolk, came to Durham, during the bishopric of the Norman Ranulf Flambard (1099-†1128). Acting as verger at St. Giles’, and listening to the lessons of the children at the school of St. Mary-le-Bow, he learnt the psalter by heart, and once more sought retirement in a cell he constructed for himself on the North bank of the Wear, near the spot where the handsome ruins of Finchale now stand.

His biography “Life of St. Goderic” by Reginald of Durham, dedicated to Hugh Pudsey, reminds us very much in its extravagant demonology and miracle-working, of the lives of Paul and Antony. Again we hear of the extreme steps taken for self-discipline, but a new feature is added; night after night, even in the cold winter months, St. Godric will stand up to his neck in the icy Wear all the night through whilst reciting the Psalms, just as St. Dryhthelm of Melrose (St. Mary’s Abbey) had done in the River Tweed in Bede’s day, and as Charles Reade makes his hero do in that finest of all historical novels “The Cloister and the Hearth.”

North of Durham and Finchale, to the East of Ravensworth on the edge of Gateshead Fell, we come to the vill of Ayton Bank, respecting which there is a very interesting document in existence: the following grant of an acre of land near the brook to the hermit of Eighton, points out the site of the ancient vill:

“Heremitarium de Eighton.

“Johannes Dei gra. Dunelm. Episcopus omnibus ad quos presentes literæ pervenerint salutem. Sciatis quod de gratia nostra speciali concessimus Roberto Lamb, Hereuntæ, unam acram vasti nostri ad finem borealem villæ de Eighton juxta altam viam ducentem versus Gatesheved vidt ex parte occidentali dictæ viæ prope rivulum descendentem de fonte vocato Scotteswell pro quadam Capella et Heremitagio per ipsum ibidem in honore S. Trinitatis edificandis, habend. et tenend. eidem Roberto ad terminum vitæ suæ de elemosina nostra libere et quiete ab omni servitio seculari ad serviendum Deo ibidem et orando pro nobis et pro predecessoribus ac successoribus nostris. In cujus, &c. Dat. apud Dunelm. 20 die Maii A° Pont. sexto. Rot. Fordham, A° 6, 1387.”  

The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham: Volume 2, Chester Ward. Chapelry of Lamesley pp. 207-218. British History online.

The life of St. Cuthbert shows him a hermit at Dull, [Perth and Kinross] in Scotland, in his early days, and again in his declining years at Inner Farne on the rocky Farne Islands off the coast of Northumberland, where the seabirds learn to love him. The miracles alleged about him and other hermits in respect to wild animals, are not hard to understand when we consider the wonderful scope they had for the practical study of Natural history, and how marvellous their knowledge would appear to the untutored visitors. But for ages the miracle-working of St. Cuthbert, and of the spirit of St. Cuthbert, was believed in by the superstitious northerners of mediaeval times, and had they not proof for ocular demonstration? When the storm subsided, throughout which the ringing of St. Cuthbert’s hammer had been heard, and they went upon his island, did they not pick up the beads which he had wrought? We know them to be simply the entrochi of Geology, but they did not, and so they called them Cuthbert’s beads, just as they called the ammonites of Yorkshire, Hilda’s petrified serpents. 

Away in the bosom of the Cumbrian hills, we find St. Herbert’s Isle, in the Lake of Derwentwater, where the ruins of the little chapel still stands, built over the shrine of St. Herbert of Derwentwater, the intimate friend of St. Cuthbert. On that  island St. Herbert spent his hermit life, visited occasionally by his friends (perhaps from Crosthwaite, where St. Kentigern [known as St. Mungo] had established his Cumbrian mission), who, starting from the little pine-clothed promontory on the eastern side of the lake, bequeathed to it the name of the “Friars’ Crag.” There in the scene so loved by Wordsworth, St. Herbert closed his life on the self-same day as his friend St. Cuthbert, on his rocky isle. Thus was their prayer strangely answered. 

St. Herbert’s Isle
© Keswick Launch

St. Cuthbert is the archetypal hermit of the sea. Others besides him have found in the sad sound of its waves and the ever-changing lights upon its surface, groundwork for passive contemplation and perpetual prayer. St. Brendan [the Navigator] found it on the bosom of the ocean, seeking the land of rest, the “Promised Land.” St. Regulus [Bishop of Patras] found it on the shores of Fife at the spot called Kilrymont, a Pictish settlement when he landed with the relics of Scotland’s patron saint St. Andrew the Apostle, and established his hermitage on the same spot where, in later years, grew the city of St. Andrews. 

Coquet Isle, off Warkworth Harbour, was itself a cell of retirement, belonging to the Benedictine monks of Tynemouth. 

But the mention of Warkworth brings us to the most entrancingly romantic of all the hermit stories, the pathetic tale so graphically told by Bishop Percy, in the style of the old Northumbrian Ballads. 

Nowhere in the world is there a more interesting anchorage, both for its architectural design and its origin, than Warkworth Hermitage. 

There lived at Bothal Castle, about the time of Edward III, a young chieftain of the name of Sir Bertram [of Bothal], whose love for Isabella heiress of the house of Widdrington was reciprocated, and moreover was approved of by the lady’s parents. But before consenting to marriage she required her suitor to prove his valour, and sent him a helmet for use against Scotland to attack Earl Douglas. In a subsequent border raid, Sir Bertram was sorely wounded, and was carried to Wark Castle by the Tweed, to be healed. His promised bride, hurrying across the Cheviot moorlands to nurse him was captured by a Scottish nobleman who had been an unsuccessful suitor for her hand, and her attendants were killed. A week later, Sir Bertram recovering, in anxiety at no tidings reaching him from the lady, goes to her home and finds that she had set out for Wark. No trace of her whereabouts being discovered, he comes to the conclusion that some mosstroopers have carried her off. Consequently, he and his brother set out in different directions under disguise to seek her. By chance, unknown to each other, they discover her prison about the same time. The brother in highland disguise is just carrying her off to safety at night when Sir Bertram in minstrel garb comes upon them and slays his brother, and the lady, discovering the mistake too late, throws herself between them and is herself slain. Henceforward the luckless victim of these sad circumstances, having been with difficulty restrained from committing suicide in his frenzy, gave himself up to the hermit life of fasting and prayer. 

His friend, Earl Percy, gave to him the sequestered spot on the North bank of the Coquet, near Warkworth, where he spent his fifty remaining years in excavating in the solid freestone rock a beautiful little Gothic chapel, which still remains, in architecture of the style of Edward III’s time.

The little grotto contains three apartments, which have been named the chapel, the sacristy, and the antechapel. Outside of these by mason-work the hermit’s —or probably his successors’— dwelling-room and bed-room were built. 

The chapel is still entire; the other apartments have been partly broken by the fall of rock. 

The chapel is about eighteen feet long, with a width and height of about seven-and-a-half feet. At the East end, reached by two steps, is a handsome stone altar, having the upper plane edged with  moulding. In the centre of the wall behind is a niche for a crucifix, with the remains of a glory. On one side of the altar is a beautiful Gothic window, which admitted light to the sacristy. On the opposite side is a cenotaph bearing the recumbent effigy of a lady. Her feet rest upon the figure of a dog, as the symbol of fidelity. Beneath is the figure of a bull’s head, the crest of the lady’s family. Kneeling at the foot of the tomb, with his head resting on his right hand, is the figure of the hermit. A door in the chapel led to an inner apartment containing an altar like that in the chapel, and a recess in the wall for the reception of a bed, whereon one of moderate size might sleep. This then was the hermit’s own sleeping apartment. Above the entrance to it is a shield, cut in the stone, and sculptured thereon are the cross, the crown, and the spear, as emblems of the Passion. 

Engraving of Interior of St. Robert’s Chapel

Leaving the chapel, we turn and look at the inscription, now illegible, but which once ran: — “Fuerunt mihi lacrimae meae panes die ac nocte,” and it seems like the motto not of this hermit alone but of every genuine hermit throughout Christendom; “My tears have been my meat day and night.”  

Outside we find the hermit’s well, and a rock-hewn flight of steps to the left of the grotto, leading to the summit of the cliff, where he had his little garden, and whence he might gaze across the Vale of Coquet. This garden is now covered thick with oaks. 

A series of hermits followed him in line, until the Reformation swept away hermitages and anchorages along with the monasteries. 

The last hermit at Warkworth seems to have been Sir George Lancastre, to whom was granted by the Earl of Northumberland a patent of twenty marks a year and other privileges in consideration of his daily prayers for the Earl and his ancestors in 1532. This document is still extant. 

Exterior view of St. Roberts Chapel at Knaresborough, North Yorks.

At Knaresborough, Yorkshire, still remains an interesting example of a hermitage. It is known as St. Robert’s Chapel, and is hewn out of the rock, at the bottom of a cliff. We give pictures of the exterior and interior of the chapel. The chapel appears to have also been the hermit’s living-room. Our illustrations are from John Carter’s “The ancient architecture of England, including the orders during the British, Roman, Saxon, and Norman eras…” (1887). 

The Reformation swept away almost all vestiges of the technical religious hermit from England, but it cannot kill the spirit of the hermit. Subsequently we find it exhibiting itself in very eccentric forms in our country. 

In 1696 died John Bigg, the hermit of Denton. Formerly clerk to the regicide Judge Mayne, at the Restoration he retired to a cave, and lived on charity, though he never asked for anything but leather, which he kept patching on his already overladen shoes. These remarkable shoes were preserved, one in the Ashmolean Museum, and the other at Denton Hall.  

William Lole
The old Hermit of Newton Burgoland ca. 1850.

In 1863 there was living near Ashby-de-la-Zouch an eccentric character who named himself “The old Hermit of Newton Burgoland.” His mania was political rather than religious. His own motto was “True hermits throughout every age have been the firm abettors of freedom,” and the actions of his life were all intended to exhibit some political, social, or religious symbolism. The garments which he wore, and the plots in which his garden were laid out, all symbolised some quaint idea. Thus one hat of helmet shape represented the idea ” Fight for the birthright of conscience, love, life, property, and national independence.” Another of his twenty symbolic hats shaped like a beehive represented the thought “The toils of industry are sweet; a wise people live at peace.” To such a weak aimless end had the hermit life decayed.

We give an illustration of the funeral of a hermit, which is one of a group in a fine picture of “St. Jerome,” by Florentine Quattrocento artist Cosimo Rosselli (1439—†1507), in the National Gallery. “It represents,”  says the Reverend Edward L. Cutts, in his “Scenes and Characters of the Middle Ages,”  “a number of hermits mourning over one of their brethren, while a priest, in the robes proper to his office, stands at the head of the bier and says prayers, and his deacon stands at the foot holding a processional cross. The contrast between the robes of the priest and those of the hermits is lost in the woodcut; in the original the priest’s cope and amice are coloured red, while those of the hermits are tinted with light brown.” It will be observed that he is to be interred without a coffin, which was customary amongst members of religious orders in bygone times. 

Yet, since nothing dies, but only all things change, all that was great and good in the hermit spirit has but passed on into other forms, for still we find poets of nature and self-denying souls, and even  the hermit form itself may phoenix-like arise again out of the ashes of the frivolity and secularism of the age as an overstrained reaction from the past, as it did of old. Who can tell? 

It will not seem more strange to us than it did to the calm-souled fellow-christians of Paul and Antony, or the Roman contemporaries of Jerome and Eustochium. 

Continue reading “Hermits and Hermit Cells”
Rome – Early Christianity

Rome – Early Christianity

The practice of depositing the bodies of the dead in the ground the Christians took from the Jews. It was not wholly a Jewish custom, as may be seen by inspecting pagan tombs discovered not long since on the Latin road. But the favourite manner, used by the Romans, was that of cremation, a custom born of the sentiment of repugnance human pride has to what is so revolting in death. The Jew, who believed in the immortality of the soul, reverenced the tabernacle in which it had dwelt, and in which he believed it was again one day to live. “In my flesh shall I see my Redeemer” was for him a… Continue reading Rome – Early Christianity

Templar Nutrition in their Eastern and Western Preceptories

Templar Nutrition in their Eastern and Western Preceptories

“In the palace, or what should rather be called the refectory, they should eat together. But if you are in need of anything because you are not accustomed to the signs used by other men of religion, quietly and privately you should ask for what you need at table, with all humility and submission. For the apostle said: Manduca panem tuum cum silentio. That is to say: ‘Eat your bread in silence.’ And the psalmist: Posui ori meo custodiam. That is to say: ‘I held my tongue.’ That is, ‘I thought my tongue would fail me.’ That is, ‘I held my tongue so that I should speak no ill.” Templar Rule on Alimentation of Monks Continue reading Templar Nutrition in their Eastern and Western Preceptories

We’ll Rise at Dawn ~ The Strength of Friendship.

We’ll Rise at Dawn ~ The Strength of Friendship.

Christian Culture: Film Recommandations
Padre Pio O.F.M. Cap

On Thursday, September 23, the Church celebrated the feast of Saint Pius of Pietrelcina with the premiere by Famiplay of the film “We’ll rise at dawn ~ The strength of friendship”. Saint Pius of Pietrelcina was one of the most beloved and popular Italian saints of the 20th century and whom for half a century had concealed the wounds of the stigmata of Jesus Christ on his hands, feet and side.

The film “We’ll Rise at Dawn” tells the story of 12-year-old Luca Paolucci from San Giovanni Rotondo, and his 13 year old friend Sebastiano  of San Marco in Lamis just 2.48 miles from S. Giovanni Rotondo in Southern Italy. These two boys intrigued and united through a strong bond of friendship and faith embark on an amazing journey in search of the man behind the real Padre Pio; a holy man, friar of miracles from southern Italy .

Luca and Sebastiano – from a scene in We’ll Rise at Dawn.

The film takes place in our time.

Luca is a 12 year old boy from San Giovanni Rotondo (south of Italy). He is intelligent, sharp witted and determined. One day, while eating supper at home, after spending the day visiting the church and museum of Padre Pio, he tells his parents about his plan to conduct a research among the people in his town who knew Padre Pio, the older people whom he wanted to interview to gather their testimonies, in order to write a book on the saint of Gargano. Luca has a ten year old sister (Miranda). The family are very close, their father is a scientist, a researcher at Padre Pio Hospital.

Luca and Sebastiano cycling through the streets of Gargano

Luca goes to see his friend, Sebastiano, in San Marco in Lamis 2.48 miles from S. Giovanni Rotondo, to ask him to team up with him on this initiative. Sebastiano accepts. He is a 13-year-old boy, within easy reach, amiable, a bit of a joker, despite a complex and difficult family situation: his mother is seriously Ill, and his father, an alcoholic often clashes with his son Sebastiano who is an only child.

The two boys begin their investigations by interviewing three characters, (two Capuchin Friars and one old lady) who knew Padre Pio when they were young and who have spoken with him in person, they are the real witnesses to some of his many miracles, his charisms, and extraordinary gifts. The saw Padre Pio’s sufferings first hand and his stigmata wounds like Christ formed in the shape of the Cross.

Here we encounter a new generation of faithful who have discovered Padre Pio, confronting the people who actually knew the saint. These three characters truly knew Padre Pio and fit quite easily into the narrative story of this fiction film.

Between one interview and another, the two boys exchange their impressions, they argue as friends do, and we see amusing interludes and boyish banter, alternating with some more serious and at times very moving moments. There are a sequence of amusing dialogues, for example between Luca and his little sister Miranda, between the two main characters, between the two main characters and their friends, family and some of the towns people.

We then get a glimpse and witness their family lives; A story of the two families. The health of Sebastiano’s mother is deteriorating rapidly. So is his father’s health, due to his alcoholism.

During a fight, Sebastiano is slapped in his face by his father. He meets Luca at Padre Pio’s ancient church where Luca attempts to consoles his friend. On their bikes they pass the plains between San Giovanni Rotondo and Monte Sant’Angelo. When they arrive at a fountain, Luca tells Sebastiano his parents have agreed to let him go with him to Pietralcina.

One day the two boys leave together for Pietrelcina with Sebastiano’s uncle… when… Something happens… and here I have to stop and say no more…

Padre Pio was a saintly capuchin  friar from the southern Italian town of Pietrelcina who lived  his ministry in San Giovanni Rotondo.  He died in 1968, for fifty years he had on his hands, feet and sides the wounds of the stigmata of Jesus Christ.  He had extraordinary gifts – he could read the minds and souls of all people who came close to him (their past and their future). He performed  numerous and incredible miracles. Today there are tens of thousands of devotees  of Padre Pio throughout the world.

The miracles and stigmata of Saint Pius of Pietrelcina are widely known, as well as his profound writings on the meaning of Christian suffering. However, what is less known, are the most relevant aspect of his work: the prophecies that he made throughout his life.

Famiplay, is a cinema platform with Catholic values in audiovisual content, and wished to contribute toward a celebration of Padre Pio life by making his life and works known through the medium of cinema.

Fr. Jean-Marie Benjamin

To achieve this, “We’ll rise at dawn” is now available on Amazon. Directed by Frenchman Jean-Marie Benjamin, Catholic priest, composer, writer and filmmaker a personal friend of Padre Pio, the film highlights the strength and intensity of friendship, whilst embarking on a wonderful journey to discover the truth about their local saint Padre Pio and his miracles.

OK for all ages

I would not hesitate to recommend this film for family viewing of any age. The following links have been provide for you to watch a trailer, read about the production company and to rent or buy the film.

Continue reading “We’ll Rise at Dawn ~ The Strength of Friendship.”
The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus  O.C.D.

The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

The impact of her posthumous publications, including Story of a Soul published shortly after her death, are extremely significant. The originality of her spirituality, also called the theology of the “Little Way” of “spiritual childhood”, has inspired multitudes of believers and also deeply affected many non-believers. Thérèse’s “little way” is understood simply to mean that we only need to… Continue reading The Story of a Soul ~ St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus O.C.D.

The Canticle of Brother Sun

The Canticle of Brother Sun

St. Francis reaffirms the divine character of Creation also in its material aspects, against the Cathars, who in those same years claimed that God had created the spiritual reality, while the material reality was of demonic origin. St. Francis of Assisi also argues against the mercantile mentality that was rapidly spreading throughout the known world and for which nature was being exploited simply for economic purposes, while the saint from Assisi argues that nature provides man with everything he needs and therefore invites us not to worry about scrambling about continuously, seeking ever greater but useless material goods. Continue reading The Canticle of Brother Sun

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica

Article translated from the l’Osservatore Romano Monday-Tuesday 3-4 February 2014, p. 4. article by Giovanni Preziosi translated by Fr. Vincent Courtney ESB (csr) The Hermits of Saint Bruno at St. Mary’s Hermitage.

On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the fascist raid on the Papal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls at the Piazzale San Paolo in Rome.

San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome

Not even their Osservatore Romano, Vatican issued ID card would save them.

After having brought to a successful conclusion the blitz within the extraterritorial complex of Basilica of Saint Mary Major, between 3-4 February, 1944. Under favourable darkness of the night, a Special Service of the police department of the Republic of Salò, directed by Lieutenant Pietro Koch, with a complement of one hundred men placed at his disposal by the new Fascist commissioner of Rome Pietro Caruso, utterly ignoring and without the slightest regard to the agreements enshrined within the Lateran Pact of 1929 and the extraterritorial buildings under the protection of the Holy See, Koch and his men through subterfuge entered into the Benedictine monastery of Saint Paul outside the Walls. The authentic deus ex machina of this operation had also been a former Vallombrosan Benedictine friar, having recently been suspended a divinis [which forbids the person from using authority of their Holy Orders] expressly for joining the Banda Koch (which soon became a by-word for cruelty and violence), was the twenty-eight year old Alfredo Epaminonda Troya also known as Don Ildefonso Troya —better known within the espionage confraternity of the time where he used the pseudonym of Elio Desi — with a subtle cunning, Troya had lured the unsuspecting doorkeeper Friar Vittorino into a trap, who, after a few moments of hesitation, yielding to his insistence, had opened the main entrance gate of the abbey.

Monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill

The raid has been described in great detail by the chronicler of the Camaldolese monastery of Saint Gregory the Great on the Caelian Hill: «The notorious commissioner of Rome Caruso with his band of bravacci [braggarts] (…) manages to cross over the threshold of the monastery and commences a night of terror for the hermit-monk’s within the walls of this monastery. Cutting all of the telephone wires thus removing all means of communication with the outside world; He and his men keeps all of the monks locked in a room with machine guns aimed at their chests for close to 12 hours while they search and rummage and pillage throughout. The monks are insulted by the inappropriate manner the monastery of the order was entered and looted by these so called officers. (…) The newspapers give voice about the events and maliciously gossip about it at length, narrating deeds and facts, giving an utterly false account of the true events. A cri de cœur rises up against the Holy See, whom in their extraterritorial and religious houses both men and items reclaimed from the German looters.»

Maj. Gen. Adriano Monti
Lt. Maurizio Giglio Murdered March 24 1944 (aged 23)

Koch’s men stealthily sneaked into the monastery, and literally turned all the hermit-monk’s cells and the apartments of the novices’ upside down. Then, under the threat of death, having loaded weapons pointed at them, Koch arrested as many as 67 people, mostly draft evaders and Jews who had arrived in dribs and drabs since the day the armistice had begun, among whom most notably was Airforce Major General Adriano Monti the Commanding Officer Sicily Air Command, whom had been surprised wearing a cassock, which had been immortalised in a photo taken by the fascists with a camera seized from an American Office of Strategic Services liaison agent, lieutenant Maurizio Giglio, whom had infiltrated Koch’s special service division. Giglio was later captured on March 17, 1944. After a final interrogation suffered on the night of 23 March, on the following 24 morning Giglio, exhausted and unable to stand up, was transported to the Regina Coeli prison. From there, Giglio was taken on a stretcher to the Fosse Ardeatine, where he was murdered, together with the other 334 martyrs, on March 24, 1944.. Among those arrested on this day were nine officers, non-commissioned officers and soldiers of the army, fugitive police officers, carabinieri and nine Jews.

[The Fosse Ardeatine Massacre was a mass killing of 335 civilians and political prisoners carried out in Rome on 24 March 1944 by the German Nazi occupation troops during the Second World War. I wanted to share the poignant words of the memorial found at the Ardeatine:

Wayfarers thirsty for liberty – we were rounded up at random – in the street and in jail – as a reprisal cast in en masse – slaughtered and walled within these pits – italians, do not curse – mothers, brides, do not weep – children, carry with pride – the memory – of the holocaust of your fathers – if our slaughter – will have had a purpose beyond revenge – it is to enshrine the right of human existence – against the crime of murder. We were slaughtered in this place because – we fought against internal tyranny – for freedom and against the foreigner – for the independence of the homeland – we dreamt a free, just – and democratic italy. may our sacrifice and our blood – sow the seed and act as warning for – generations to come. Here we were slaughtered – victims of a horrendous sacrifice – may our sacrifice give rise to a better homeland – and to lasting peace among the peoples.

Out of the depths, I cry to you, o lord. De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine, Domine; –יהוה קראתיך ממעמקים המעלות שיר

Psalm 130 (NCB)
Pope Pius XII

The fascist press could not resist but to use such a glorious opportunity of using the photograph for propaganda purposes, and launched a harsh attack upon the Holy See and against Pius XII a barrage of insulting remarks, labelled with unflattering epithets because, in their opinion, Pius was allowing  this to happen and therefore “these actions mark [you] as a traitor” against the people of Italy. The fascists also got their hands on nine Jews, including the brothers Arturo and Umberto Soliani who, being surprised and the Nazi-fascist bullies arrival as they were asleep in their monastic cells, tried in vain to free themselves, but during the struggle they were savagely beaten up to the point that the next day, when family members received their clothing, they could not fail but noticed that their pyjamas were saturate in their blood.

As soon as Italy had entered the war, the Soliani’s had rushed to the capital city together with their children — four-year-old Alessandro and one-year-old Angelo — and their spouses Lina and Elvira Terracina, who were being hunted by the police commissioner of Brescia Manlio Candrilli [who distinguished himself particularly for his ruthlessness in hunting Jews], who he had been on their case from the day that they had opened a costume jewellery, leather goods and gift items shop called “Alla bomboniera” in corso Zanardelli 7, of the Gardone Riviera area of Brescia. Arturo and Umberto had managed to find refuge at the Abbey of San Paolo, while Lina and Elvira, with their respective children, were given refuge and hid inside a monastery of nuns, the Sisters of Good and Perpetual Help in Via Merulana [whom hid 133 jewish women and children helping them evade the Shoah]. Unfortunately, every precaution, in the end, proved to be in vain; even the identity cards issued to Arturo and Umberto as soon as they arrived in the Benedictine monastery from the Holy See, with the Vatican emblem, which certified that they were both journalists employed by the Osservatore Romano were absolutely useless as they were ignored.

Don Pier Luigi Occelli Partisan Priest

The seriousness of the incident, with the clear violation of the right of extraterritoriality sanctioned by the Lateran Pacts, obviously aroused the indignation of the Holy See which, as soon as it was made aware of the affair by the parish priest of Gesù Buon Pastore, Don Pier Luigi Occelli, the Resistance chaplain, immediately began to protest most vigorously to the competent Italian and German authorities, and without hesitation publishing a detailed background of the events in the Osservatore Romano on February 10, thus countering the article that appeared a few days earlier in the fascist newspaper “La Tribuna”. The denial of the Nazis though, was not enough to placate the irritation of the Vatican hierarchy, so much so that through the Apostolic nuncio in Bern, Monsignor Bernardini, Don Giustino Pancino was instructed to immediately urge Mussolini to take the appropriate measures and resolve the problem.

Abbey of San Paolo

As soon as Lina and Elvira learned what had happened at the Abbey of San Paolo, fearing for the fate of their loved ones, and not wanting to give up, so much so that the latter, although she was in the last months of pregnancy, defied fate, and tried absolutely everything possible, even risking her own life by going personally, first of all, to the director of the Roman prison of Regina Coeli Donato Carretta — whom just a few days earlier had favoured the daring escape made by Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat, both anti-fascists members of the Socialist Party and future presidents of the Italian Republic — Carretta immediately showed himself indulgent, revealing the possibility of freeing her husband and her brother-in-law backed by a hefty reward that would have allowed him to flee to Switzerland and away from prying eyes so as not to suffer the foreseeable retaliation from the Nazi-fascists. The promise was a tempting one, but where could she have raised such a large sum. And time was beginning to run out?

Sandro Pertini and Giuseppe Saragat

At that point all she had left as a last playing card was to contact the commissioner Pietro Caruso directly. Most certainly Elvira was not lacking courage, so much so that, without too much thought, she rushed to the police station asking to be received by Caruso whom, without hearing her out, ordered her to leave that place immediately otherwise he would have had her arrested because she was a Jew, adding that she had to thank the creature she was carrying in her womb or that he would make provisions to that effect. Unfortunately there was nothing more she could do. Every attempt to save the two men wrecked miserably and with it so also did the hope of ever being able to embrace them again one day.

In fact, together with the other Jews captured at the basilica of San Paolo, towards the middle of February, they were first transferred to Verona, then to the Fossoli transit camp and from there, on May 16, 1944, aboard Convoy № 46, to Auschwitz. from where they would never return.


Almighty God of Our Fathers, we remember the six million people carried out in pogroms and mass shootings; by a policy of extermination through labor in concentration camps; and in gas chambers and gas vans in German extermination camps. These innocents were killed, drowned, burned alive, tortured, beaten and some froze to death. Because of one man, a whole nation was crucified, while the world looked on in silence. In our hearts, their sacred memory will last forever and ever. Amen. God of Our Fathers, let the ashes of the children incinerated in Auschwitz, the rivers of blood spilled, be a warning to all of humanity that hatred is destructive, that violence is contagious, while man has an unlimited capacity toward cruelty. Almighty God, fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “They will beat their swords into plowshares … One nation will not lift up a sword against another, nor will they ever again be trained for war.” Amen.

Please, always have the courage not to remain silent when you witness wrongdoing being perpetrated, speak out unceasingly against oppression, hate, use of force, or any other forms of injustice. Remember you could be next at the receiving end of injustice. God calls every single one of us to be peacemakers; God calls us to heal our world which is broken, and within a deep unanimity of the spirit, to work for a world in which justice flourishes, where peace thrives and becomes the norm (Psalm 72:7). Peace is not something that simply materialises from above; peace must be created and maintained by us, being built and maintained by those people who beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4), choosing to spend money for a sustainable and peaceful future rather than on the war machine.

Continue reading “On the night between 3 and 4 February 1944, the Nazi-fascist raid on the Papal Basilica”


The word ‘monasticism’ is derived from the Greek word monos which means ‘alone,’ solitary.’[1] These words indicated the idea of solitude, of isolation. As we shall see, the term ‘monk’ has come to be applied to men living the same life in common —a life in which they are indeed separated from the world, but not from one another. Strictly speaking the term, ‘monasticism’, should be reserved for the form of religious life led by those who, having separated themselves entirely from the world, live in solitude — as, in fact, the etymology of the words ‘monk’, ‘monastery’, etc., clearly indicates.[2] 

Monasticism is the religious practice of renouncing all worldly pursuits in order to fully devote one’s life to spiritual work.[3] Monasticism (Greek word monos means ‘single’) usually refers to the way of life, communitarian or solitary, adopted by those individuals, male or female, who have elected to pursue an ideal of perfection or a higher level of religious experience through leaving the world. Monastic orders historically have been organised around a rule or a teacher, the activities of the members being closely regulated in accordance with the rule adopted.[4] Those pursuing a monastic life are usually called ‘monks’ or ‘brothers’ (male), and ‘nuns’ or ‘sisters’ (female). Both monks and nuns may also be called ‘monastics’.[5] 

Technically, monasticism embraces both the life of the hermit, characterised by varying degrees of extreme solitude, and the life of the cenobite, that is, the monk living in a community offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. This asceticism may include fasting, silence, a prohibition against personal ownership, and an acceptance of bodily discomfort. Almost always it includes poverty, celibacy, and obedience to a spiritual leader.[6] The goal of such practices is usually a more intense relationship with God, some type of personal enlightenment, or the service of God through prayer, meditation, or good works such as teaching or nursing. It can be found in some form among most developed religions: Hinduism,[7] Buddhism,[8] Jainism,[9] Taoism, the Sufi branch of Islam[10] and Christianity.[11] 

There were only two Jewish groups —the Essenes and Therapeutae— engaged in any form of organised asceticism. The Essenes may be regarded as one of the most striking examples of monastic life outside of Christianity. They inhabited the monastery at Qumran near the Dead Sea and appear to have lived in ascetic style, practicing chastity, poverty and obedience. The Essenes (circa. 150 BC) offer all the principal characteristics of the cenobitic life — community of goods, practice of poverty and mortification, prayer and work, meals and religious exercise in common, silence, celibacy, etc.[12] The Qumran monastery was destroyed during the Roman-Jewish war of 66-70 AD, and the fate of the Essenes thereafter is uncertain. It is unlikely that they had any impact upon Christian monasticism, which began only in the late III century.[13] Although there is no direct relationship between them, it is nevertheless true that both Essenian and Christian asceticism derived much of their practice from the same source, viz. the Jewish religion.[14] 

The Therapeutae were contemporary with the Essenes. They abandoned families and possessions in order to live in ascetic seclusion far from the noise and commotion of cities.[15] Philo of Alexandria is our sole witness to their existence. He describes them as cenobites, leading a life almost identical with that of the Christian cenobites.[16] Nevertheless they do not seem to have exercised any direct influence on Christian monasticism. 

Christian asceticism is known to have begun in Egypt about the III or the IV century AD, and is associated with St. Antony. It is believed that about the end of the III century Antony’s life as a solitary ascetic was brought to an end by a number of disciples gathering round him. So he becomes the father of Christian monasticism. It was this type of monastic life that prevailed in Egypt up to the middle of the V century AD. All later Christian asceticism and monasticism is traceable to it. 

The origins of early Christian monasticism are not clearly known and are, therefore, subject to controversy. Some scholars believe that the monastic movement was prompted by Late Jewish communal and ascetic ideals, such as those of the Essenes. Still others speculate that Manichaean and similar forms of dualism inspired extremes of asceticism within the Christian family. However, the first Christian commentators on monasticism believed that the movement had truly gospel origins. 

Christian monastics drew their spiritual strength from Christ’s emphasis on poverty and on the “narrow way” to salvation. Early monastics believed that Paul preferred celibacy to marriage. Indeed, the first nuns seem to have been widows of the late Roman period who decided not to remarry. From one point of view, the decision of some Christians to live separate from the community, both physically and spiritually, was regrettable. From another, the commitment and service of the monastics made them the most valued people in early medieval society. 

Monasticism in Christianity is a family of similar traditions that began to develop early in the history of the Christian church, modelled upon scriptural examples and ideals, but not mandated as an institution by the scriptures. While most people think of Christian or Catholic monks or nuns as “Something to do with living in a monastery,” from the Church’s point of view the focus has nothing to do with living in a monastery or performing any specific activity. Rather, the focus is on an ideal called the religious life, also called the state of perfection. This idea is expressed in the notion that the things of God are sought above all other things, as seen for example in the philokalia, a book of monastic writings. In other words, a monk or run is a person who has vowed to follow not only the commandments of the Church, but also the counsels (e.g., vows of poverty, chastity and obedience). The words of Jesus which are the cornerstone for this ideal are “be ye perfect like your heavenly father is perfect”.[17]

Christian cenobitic monasticism as it is mainly known in the West started in Egypt. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, and especially in the Middle East this continued to be very common until the decline of Syrian Christianity in the late Middle ages. 

The first Christian hermits seem to have stablished themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, where in pre-Christian times the Therapeutae, an order of Jewish ascetics, had been established. Not long afterword the desert regions of Upper Egypt became a retreat for those who fled from the persecutions of the Christians so frequent in the Roman Empire during the III century, and for those who found the vices of the world intolerable. The earliest form of Christian monasticism was, probably, that of the anchorites or hermits; a later development is found in the pillar saints, called Stylites, who spent most of their time on the tops of pillars in order to separate themselves from the world and to mortify the flesh. After a time, however, the necessities of the religious life itself led to modifications. In order to combine the personal seclusion of individuals with the common exercise of religious duties, the early hermits had an aggregation of separate called lavra or laura, to which they could retire after their communal duties had been discharged. From the union of the common life with personal solitude is derived the name cenobite (Greek Koinos bios, “Common life”) by which a certain class of monks is distinguished.[18] 

Saint Antony the Great was connected with the first Egyptian hermits; Saint Pachomius (d.46), with the first communities of cenobites in Egypt. Saint Basil the Great (f1.379), bishop of Caesarea, placed monasticism in an urban context by introducing charitable service as a work discipline.[19] 

St. Antony, who embraced solitude, established himself at Alexandria, and the fame of his sanctity, as well as his gentleness and learning, drew many disciples to him. Most of his followers accompanied him when he retired to the desert. One of his disciples, St. Pachomius who established a great monastery on an island in the Nile River, is regarded as the founder of the cenobitic manner of living. Pachomius drew up for his subjects a monastic rule, the first regulations of the kind on record. Many thousands of disciples flocked to him, and he founded several other monasteries for men and one for women under the direction of his sister. All of these houses recognized the authority of a single superior, an about or archimandrite. They constitute the original type of the religious order. The cenobitic form of monasticism was first introduced into the west at Rome and in Northern Italy by St. Athanasius, in Central North Africa by St. Augustine, and in Gaul by St. Martin of Tours. The religious revival effected by St. Benedict of Nursia early in the VI century gave Western monasticism its permanent form.[20]

Mar Awgin founded a monastery on Mt. Izla above Nisbis in Mesopotamia (350), and from his monastery the cenobitic tradition spread in Mesopotamia, Persia, Armenia, Georgia and even India and China. St. Sabbas the Sanctified organised the monks of the Judaean Desert in a monastery close to Bethlehem (483), and this is considered the mother of all monasteries of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. St. Benedict of Nursia founded the monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy (529), which was the seed of Roman Catholic monasticism in general, and of the order of Benedict in particular.[21] 

The first monks of whom we have a good record represent an extreme phase in the evolution of monasticism. These are the so-called desert fathers, hermits, living in the eremitical style in the deserts of Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. Enraged by sin and fearful of damnation, they left the towns for a solitary struggle against temptation. Some, like Simeon Stylites lived very exotic lives and became pilgrim attractions. More typical, however, was Antony of Egypt (c.250-356), whose commitment to salvation led him back to the community to evangelise unbelievers. His extreme asceticism deeply touched the sensibilities of the age. 

The reputed founder of Christian achoritism, Antonius, was first active in Egypt c.280-90 AD. But in 306 AD., one of his disciples visited western Syria, i.e., the intermediate region between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and reported that monasticism was as yet unknown there. 

Moreover, its origin in eastern Syria and Mesopotamia seem to date back to the end of the III century, leaving insufficient time for it to have spread from Egypt. Thus it appears that monasticism arose spontaneously and independently in Egypt and in Syria-Mesopotamia. 

The hermits (‘desert’) lived in solitude in the desert; St. John the Baptist, and later St. Paul the Hermit and St. Antony, were the first of these. Anchorites or anchorites (‘retreat’) title is synonymous with the hermits, and indicates those monks who practiced the solitary life. This form of monastic life is the most ancient; it spread, first of all, in Egypt, then in Palestine and Syria, through the whole of the eastern world, and, finally, in the West.[22]

Pachomius (c.290-346), an Egyptian monk, preferred the communal life. He wrote a rule of life for monks in which he emphasised organisation and the rule of elder monks over the newly professed. The rule became popular, and the movement toward communal life was ensured. To the idea of community Basil the Great (c.330-79) added another element. In his writings, and especially in his commentaries on the scriptures, this father of Eastern monasticism defined a theory of Christian humanism which he felt was binding on the monasteries. According to Basil, monastics should care for orphans, feed the poor, maintain hospitals, educate children, even provide work for the unemployed. 

Toward the end of the IV century the individualist asceticism of the anchorites gradually became rarer. Ascetic impulses came increasingly to be expressed through the communal life of monasteries, where monks were subject to rules and bishops supervised their activities. Small and crude monastic establishments grew in size, acquiring fields, orchards and gardens, inasmuch as an entire community of monks could not be supported solely on the charity of surrounding villages. Often the presence of monks near a town was considered lucky, and the towns-people helped to erect buildings for them. 

The original foundation of a monastery frequently came about when a widely know anchorite was joined in his solitude by a few disciples, and the anchorite failed to send them away. This happened with the monk Saba (d. 366/67 AD) of Edessa. According to his contemporary St. Ephraim, Juliana was known to the “whole world”. This outstanding anchorite inhabited a cave in the vicinity of Edessa, where the practiced severe mortification, including long vigils and severe fasts. Gradually a group of admirers gathered around his cave, and Juliana organised a rudimentary form of common life for them. The fame of Juliana Saba led other monks to follow his example. 

Ephraim compared his role in the organisation of monasteries to a huge censer that spread incense through the entire country around Edessa.[23] 

Christian monasticism grew and took institutional form in order to provide a supportive setting for those who wished to take vows of poverty and chastity, who valued the love of Christ which surpasses the love of women. As a later development, Christian monasticism is not explicitly regulated by scripture. It has taken a wide variety of forms, from solitary hermits and begging mendicants to orders dedicated to nursing, teaching, scholarship and other forms of service to the world.[24]